Some on Pine Island still live in a post-Ian disaster zone
Living in a disaster zone. That remains the reality for some people in Matlacha and on the south end of Pine Island, nearly six months after Hurricane Ian caused massive damage. The stress is taking a toll on some people, while many on the island focus on rebuilding.
Living in a disaster zone. That's reality for some people at the south end of Pine Island and in Matlacha. This is happening nearly six months after Hurricane Ian caused massive damage to the area.
Crews still are rebuilding the electrical grid, and some people are living in trailers or campers. Others on the island are focused on rebuilding and regaining some sense of normal.
Ian wrecked 24-year-old Serina Berry's rented trailer in St. James City, at the south tip of Pine Island. The storm also wiped out the place where she had worked. She said the stress has been getting to her lately.
"Full-on panic attacks, crying, staying in bed for five days without eating or drinking much," Berry said of a recent episode. "I almost ended up in the hospital, I was so stressed."
Relatives flew in from out of state to help Berry get through these tough times. "My heart is heavy," she said. "But now I am getting therapy to help me."
People in Matlacha and some parts of Pine Island are dealing with catastrophic damage. Shattered homes sit vacant, crews pick up huge piles of debris, crews work to restore power to everyone, and the hum of generators still can be heard in some neighborhoods of St. James City. Ian also wrecked many of the colorful cottages in Matlacha. Those were the places where local artisans sold their wares.
Greater Pine Island Chamber of Commerce President Larry Solinger said his wife lost her Matlacha Menagerie business to the hurricane. But he added that she has reopened in another location along the road through Matlacha. He said that shows the spirit of Pine Island.
"Thankful and hopeful would be the two words I would use to describe the attitude of Pine Island," Solinger said. He gave credit to people putting aside their differences and working for a common goal: to reopen businesses and regain a sense of normalcy. "It's going to take time. But we are going to be okay," he said. Solinger also gave a lot of credit to Lee County Commissioner Kevin Ruane. Solinger said Ruane has come to Pine Island often to meet with people and gather information on what is needed for recovery.
Seventy-two-year old Jack McCollum said he feared he would drown as he waded through chest-deep waters, fleeing his destroyed mobile home in St. James City. He said a rescue crew saved him and his wife after Ian roared through.
"I think about it every day," he said of the afternoon and evening of September 28 of last year. "If I even see a puddle on the road, I think of the flood. It sticks with you."
McCollum said he wife is so traumatized that she will not even come to Pine Island. He will not rebuild.
"There's nothing left," he said. "It's all gone. The furniture, the clothes. We got out with the clothes on our backs. That was it."
McCollum said he will move to the highest ground he can find in central Florida, far from either coast and from large bodies of water.
Aaron Barreda is a retired Lt. Colonel in the US Army. He founded the Pine Island Alliance to coordinate recovery efforts. People describe Barreda as a whirlwind of energy, always working to bring help to people. But even Barreda said he is noticing that the on-going disaster is taking a toll on some people.
"It is not hopelessness, but a feeling of despair," he said. "But Pine Island is super resilient. The spirit of Pine Island is to rebuild, and we will."
Victims like Serina Berry said they're holding out for better times.
"It's just devastating," Berry said. "You don't know what to do, how to help, when you need help yourself."
Mike Walcher is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the FGCU Journalism program, and also works as a reporter for WGCU News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2023 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.